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Vickerman: Wisconsin primed for more wind energy development

By Brian E. Clark

Wisconsin has a long history of using wind-energy to pump water on the state’s plentiful farms and dairies -- but not to produce electricity for the grid.

That changed a decade ago, when two big wind turbines were installed by four utilities near Green Bay as a demonstration project for the state’s Public Service Commission.  

The following year, 33 turbines went up in Fond du Lac and Kewaunee counties.  And two years later, the Montfort project was built on land owned by several farmers west of Dodgeville. The project featured 20 GE wind turbines, producing 30 megawatts of energy.

When the blades of these tall machines are all spinning, they produce 52 MW – enough to supply electricity to roughly 10,000 homes – said Michael Vickerman, head of RENEW Wisconsin, a 17-year-old group based in Madison that lobbies for wind, solar and other forms of clean energy.  

For seven years, no new commercial wind farms were built. Energy companies paused, Vickerman said, to work out the bugs, see what legislators would do to promote their efforts and determine if their turbines would make money.  

Fast forward to 2008.

The state now has two more wind farms in Fond du Lac and Dodge counties that opened just this year. They are the 145-MW Blue Sky Green Field We Energies project and the 86-MW Forward Wind Energy Center near Horicon Marsh. Together, they can supply electricity to at least 50,000 homes.

Two more are under construction that will add another 122 MW this year for a total of 449 MW in the state. The industry is continuing to pick up speed with another 10 Wisconsin projects having received permits from state, local and federal agencies. And a recent PSC report looked into the possibility of off-shore wind farms, finding them to be potentially feasible down the road.

Some of these new turbines stand nearly 400 feet tall when their blades are included.  Set in fields of corn, they look like giants marching across the landscape.

“They have to be big in order to produce volumes of electricity that matter to utilities,” said Vickerman, who called wind a “remarkable resource... that produces a very impressive amount of energy.”

Vickerman said the big push is due to increases in the state’s renewable standard, which now calls for Wisconsin to get 10 percent of its energy from alternative energy sources. And the governor’s Global Warming Task Force is pushing for an increase to 25 percent by 2025.

Though there have been hitches in recent years, he lauded utilities for investing in wind energy. More wind farms -- which he said produce electricity for a price that is competitive with new coal-fired plants -- will be added, he predicted, thanks in part to the recent congressional renewal of tax credits for turbines.  

Vickerman forecasts that Wisconsin will have a total of 700 wind turbines, producing 1,000 MW of power, in a decade.

He acknowledged that the state will need to upgrade its infrastructure somewhat to get wind energy from less populated portions of the state to cities. But he said more high-power lines will definitely be required to transfer electricity from wind-rich regions of northern Iowa, southern Minnesota and the Dakotas across the Mississippi River to the Badger State.

Vickerman said 90 percent of the cost of wind farms is in the construction of the turbines and permitting.

“After that, it’s mostly maintenance,” he said. “Once you figure out what the equipment costs, you know what the power will cost. You don’t have that security with a gas-fired or coal-fired plant because there is a fuel cost that goes up and down.”

Also unlike coal or gas, it takes no imported fuels to bring the wind to the turbines, he added.

The only knock on wind, he said, is that it does not blow all the time and can’t be turned on – like a natural gas plant – “with the flick of a switch.” It also is different than coal-fired “base load” plants that can run 24 hours a day for weeks and weeks on end.

“Yes, the output (from wind) varies from moment to moment,” he said, noting that Wisconsin’s newest wind farms should have their turbine blades spinning 30 percent of the time. “But wind has many obvious advantages.”

Vickerman said his group and other alternative energy advocates have learned a great deal in the past decade, especially about the intricacies of the permitting process. But he lamented that other states have “vaulted” ahead of Wisconsin when it comes to wind power.

“Wind has been a steady, emission-free performer,” he said. “It’s also popular with consumers.

“Wind development is a very tricky process,” he added. “There are still pockets of people who don’t understand the technology and are afraid of it. I don’t know why because it has an impeccable safety record in Wisconsin.

“But that doesn’t stop some people from protesting the prospect of living near a wind farm,” he added, noting that some folks do not like turbines’ appearance.

“Turbines by nature have to be visible,” he mused. “If they are not visible, they aren’t producing usable energy.”

Still, Vickerman said he believes there is wide public support for wind energy, so his group will continue to push for its development.

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